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The scandal that's brought some glitz back to France

Thursday, 4 October 2012 - 1:28pm IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
All it took was one legal injunction - and Francois Hollande's depressed, tax-burdened France was suddenly recalling the glitz of the Sarkozy years.

All it took was one legal injunction - and Francois Hollande's depressed, tax-burdened France was suddenly recalling the glitz of the Sarkozy years. Rachida Dati, the Dior-clad former justice minister, now a Euro MP, had for the past four years steadfastly refused to name the father of her daughter Zohra. Dati - always referred to in France as Rachida - has just filed a paternity case against the hotel tycoon Dominique Desseigne, heir to one of France's great fortunes.

Rachida's rapier-writ seemed finally to answer one of Paris's tantalising mysteries: the identity of the country's most famous single mother's mysterious lover. Desseigne's had been among the names bandied about, but so was that of Spain's former premier Jose-Maria Aznar. The married Aznar had to issue a denial. Also mentioned were the EDF Energy chairman, Henri Proglio; Qatar's attorney-general, Ali Bin Fetais al-Marri; the then President Sarkozy's brother Francois, a star paediatrician; the former sports minister Bernard Laporte; and the actor Vincent Lindon. All hurried to deny the rumours.

All Rachida's men are of a type: raffish, worldly, elegantly middle-aged, either well off or seriously rich, and close to Nicolas Sarkozy (rightly or wrongly, the former president himself was briefly included in the tally, for which his third wife, Carla Bruni, never forgave Rachida). I remember thinking that for the Becky-Sharp-ambitious Rachida to keep such a close lid on the name, it was possible that baby Zohra's father was a complete unknown.

Within 10 minutes of working my telephone, I felt thrown back into the overheated rumour mill of the Sarkozy Noughties. Two sources had radically opposite readings of the situation. One was a long-time friend of Desseigne's: "He's absolutely, positively not the father. Rachida is just trying to stir the pot." He's betting on Aznar. "They were texting all the time when she was pregnant." No proof, of course, was given.

The other - a Sarkozyste politician - was quite sure Desseigne was the father, "Rachida isn't stupid. There will be DNA testing. She wants some sort of child support, I expect. It also puts her back in the news at a time when the opposition is in dire need of a strong candidate for Paris mayor in 2014."

All the same, Rachida Dati, once the bright star of Sarkozy's rainbow cabinet, may have overplayed her hand. She was given a sinecure as mayor of Paris's seventh arrondissement, a district that makes Knightsbridge look depressed, but couldn't get chosen for a safe MP's seat last June. She must have felt in danger of being forgotten - but will the whiff of bling she brings back be an asset or a liability in austerity-hit France?

The former president himself suddenly seems to be everywhere. Apart from calls for a halt to the Syrian repression, Sarkozy has kept uncharacteristically silent since his defeat in May. He now jogs in the Bois de Boulogne, or attends football matches or society weddings. At a time when Francois Hollande's ratings have plummeted faster than any Fifth Republic president's - to more than 50% negative - Sarkozy is basking in a new-found popularity: 44% now say he'd tackle the economic crisis better than the current lot.

The French rarely feel that foreigners can write convincingly about their history, but the first readers of Jo Graham's new novel, The General's Mistress, say her portrait of Ida Saint-Elme, a Dutch-born courtesan loved by Marshal Ney, gets it right. Saint-Elme rode with Napoleon's army, travelled from Russia to Egypt and wrote the biggest-selling memoirs of the early 19th century, earning herself the scandalous name of the female Casanova.

 




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